Writer and broadcaster

I can’t stand my 12 year old nephew. The Guardian

Dear Annalisa

My sister married her husband and they emigrated 5,000 miles away in 2001. They have two boys, aged 12 and nine. The elder takes after his father and the younger after his mother.

I always found her husband a bit of a pain, but I thought his heart was in the right place. Gradually, it’s become apparent that he is socially inept, insecure and rude. He also makes jokes, that are not funny, at people’s expense.

His behaviour appears to be leading the elder son to follow in his footsteps. When he was little, my nephew was a lovely kid, but now he’s become sullen, petulant, rude and whiny. If anyone tells him off, he runs to his father to tell him – but his father doesn’t back up the person who has pulled his son up on his bad behaviour. Instead, he says things such as “Stay as you are, you’re a great kid.”

Three years ago, when I visited with my partner, my nephew’s behaviour was quite shocking – he was only nine then. It was the first time I’d witnessed it and there was no holding back. My sister and her husband were trying to work out what to do with him, but didn’t ever pull him up on his behaviour. As I was only visiting I did what I could to correct him, but couldn’t do much as he’s not my child.

At the end of last year, my sister became seriously ill; the prognosis is not good. She is in a wheelchair and is now passive and quiet – understandably, but it is a dramatic change. It makes me very sad to see my little sister like this and increases my concerns for the children and how they are being brought up.

My parents were visiting last year and extended their stay when my sister became ill. They stayed for six months to help out. However, their elder grandson was rude to them constantly.

I’m visiting again in July. I’m dreading it. The children will be on holiday. It’s going to be nightmarish. I find I can’t rise above my nephew’s behaviour any more. He is obnoxious and, frankly, a wind-up artist. He pushes buttons and it’s all I can do to control myself. I cannot stand him. I dislike him and nothing that has happened over the last three years leads me to believe that he will change now.

They are so far away that visiting is costly and time consuming, but I have to spend as much time with my sister as possible as we don’t know how long she has left. However, when she is no longer there, I can’t see me wanting to visit them again. Am I being petty? Am I overreacting? E, via email

I wonder what this is really about and what happened three years ago? Your longer letter listed at great length all the things your nephew, who you named repeatedly (I took all identifying details out), has done to annoy you and your parents. That’s quite a burden for a little boy to carry. When children provoke such extreme reactions in grownups, it’s usually more about the adult than the child.

He may be the world’s most annoying child and he may have behavioural issues, but he is only a child and, as such, however he may seem to you, he is intensely vulnerable. His mother is seriously ill. He doesn’t have much life experience to fall back on, to reassure himself that even if his aunt can’t stand him he’s still OK. He will sense that you don’t like him – children are masters at non-verbal communication – and that won’t bring out the best in him.

This war you have going on with him is not fairly loaded. Has your sister ever expressed unhappiness with her husband or sons? (There was no hint of this other than “working out what to do with him”.) Have your parents expressed the same feelings you have? Or are you imagining they have, or have you seized on one or two comments they have made? Would you be comfortable showing your sister or your parents (or both), the letter you wrote me?

It’s really annoying when other people, even siblings, don’t bring up their children the way you’d want them to, but there it is. You can’t do much about that. You clearly need, and want, to spend as much time with your sister as possible. Ultimately, at the heart of this is a very sick woman and her extremely vulnerable, probably extremely frightened children. I don’t doubt how you feel but ultimately, in this current scenario, you come last.

I urge you to try to stay in a B&B, not in the house, when you visit – so you can go back somewhere at the end of each day and regroup. I think that would benefit everyone in what sounds like a very sad situation. Lastly, I am going to urge you to do the very thing you don’t want to: spend some time alone with your nephew.

First published in the Guardian Family section on 21 June 2013.